Category Mistake

Michael Metzger

Alex Mayyasi writes that a banker listening to a theologian seems like a curiosity, a category error. But for most of history, this kind of dialogue was the norm. What happened that clergy serving as consultants became viewed as a category mistake?

Gilbert Ryle coined “category mistake” in his 1949 book, The Concept of the Mind. He argued against putting body and mind in two categories, an idea that arose with the Enlightenment. Mayyasi, a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Priceonomics, cites another category mistake in a recent column in Aeon. He recounts the story of Citigroup hiring David Miller in 2014 as an on-call ethicist.

I met Miller in 2003, just as he was receiving his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He had previously worked in finance and business for 16 years. Now David is a professor of business ethics and the director of Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative. Miller’s “How to Succeed without Selling Your Soul” is the students’ popular nickname for his signature course. In 2014, Citigroup called him.

The bank had been battered by successive scandals. Citigroup sought to hire an on-call ethicist. David Miller fit the bill. He talks to bankers and business leaders about finances, faith, and philosophy. Many like it, confessing a desire to do good.

Miller says he’ll often have lunch with an executive, and they say: “You do this God stuff?”’ They spend the next hour talking about ethics, purpose, meaning. Miller wants leaders in finance to talk about “wisdom, whatever its source.” To ignore this, as the bulk of the industry tends to do, is equivalent to “putting on intellectual blinders.”

The blindness is forgetting that, as modern finance arose in Europe, clergy counseled bankers. From the 1100s to the 1500s, church leaders, including Thomas Aquinas, discussed money’s “natural end’” or purpose. Using money to make money, rather than to facilitate the exchange of goods and services for the good of all, violated natural law. In another treatise, the prominent Italian cardinal Thomas Cajetan analyzed the ethics of how bankers hid interest payments in inflated exchange rates. “It was equivalent to a cardinal in 2006 writing knowledgeably about credit-default swaps,” Mayyasi says.

So when and why did most financial people stop seeing their work in moral terms? As Mayyasi notes, “It shouldn’t be so strange for a big bank to hire a theologian such as Miller; what should be strange is that we find it strange.” He’s right. It’s a category mistake. But when and where did it come from?

It came from positivism. Auguste Comte founded positivism, the idea that humanity progresses through stages of positive improvements. The first is theological, when God is seen as the great cause of all things. The second dispenses with theology in favor of philosophy. Comte called the third and final stage the “positivist,” when only science is seen as legitimate and rational. This created two categories. Facts are objective. Faith is subjective. God might be divine, but he’s deficient in matters of commerce and business.

Positivism got traction in the second half of the 19th century with a network of influentials. Members included James Joyce, William James, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, John Dewey and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. They represented the new authorities on ethics and finance. By the 20th century, economics had become the supposedly scientific study of self-interest and individual incentives.

That’s not working out real well. We’re heading into a new Gilded Age. A growing number of financial people seem to be sensing this. They want to see their work in moral terms. They seek purpose and meaning in what has become “the dismal science.”

I think this is a grand opportunity for believers who are familiar with the biblical story of finance and money. If you aren’t, I recommend “The Good of Affluence” by John Schneider. If you are familiar with this story, the next step is learning the language and literature of finance so that clergy can translate Bible into boardroom language. It can be done. Clergy can reclaim their ancient role as consultants to those in finance. It’s the best way to override the reigning category mistake in banking.


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  1. Moving from data responses to increasing knowledge, understanding and wisdom of
    the PERSONA.

    Bottom line is whether the motive of the transaction is resonant or corrupt.

  2. Questions follow. Do Christians involved in banking and finance already know, all too well, the language and literature of the “Barbarians”? James K. A. Smith has asserted that those of us in the church don’t even know how much we willingly participate in the “liturgy of the mall”. Would we be better served to relearn our own language and literature, Biblical principles (as opposed to Biblical language) and literature, in order to confront what goes on day to day in those activities that are contrary to “Wisdom” in whatever industry we engage?

  3. Bob:

    You might be right (btw, it’s the Babylonians… not the Barbarians!). Without a doubt, we are enculturated in the liturgies of the mall, consumerism, and individualism. Few Christians open themselves up for assessment by others (what Wilberforce called “the friendly reproofs of a friend.”

  4. David Miller has been providing valuable ethical guidance to businesses for years. We need more like him

  5. The trick, it seems to me, is to see how these hires like David Miller can generate the “clout” needed to ultimately change the behavior of corporate leadership that can most impact the culture of their respective organizations. Too often, as in the case of Harvard Business School’s Business Ethic programming, these efforts are pushed to the side as nonessential window dressing that give the appearance that the company or school is doing something to influence their corporate behavior. The reality is that the discussion of core values, culture, and ethics are too often reduced to little more than a corporate rain dance. Until the recent Wells Fargo change in leadership, it has been rare that the top leadership takes the fall for corporate indiscretions prompted by their “in-place” unwritten culture of greed. Usually, some underling is blamed for the indiscretion, not the CEO. Until Wall Street as well as Main Street agree that a solid, well-conceived and thoroughly inculcated culture is an essential component of a prosperous and flourishing company, I think we will see very little change in our country’s corporate business ethics. These moral failures need to be seen as something much worse than a public relations nightmare. Success in the business world will need to grasp a definition that is much more multi-faceted than the binary profit-loss statement. Our corporate missions will need to have a much “stickier” sense of transcendence than merely being an efficient means of putting “food on the table.”

  6. In a recent editorial, the author (Michael Gerson) quoted CS Lewis:
    CS Lewis posited three elements that make up human beings. There is the intellect, residing in the head. There are the passions, residing in the stomach (and slightly lower). And then there are trained, habituated emotions – the “stable sentiments” of character – which Lewis associated with the chest.
    In the realm of political ethics, voters last year did not prioritize character in sufficient numbers, during the primaries or the general election. Now we are seeing the result.
    When I ask leadership/management class attendees what the number one determination of leadership effectiveness is, often people answer: “Character” I disagree and point out many effective leaders who are/were lacking in personal character. HOWEVER, it’s also important to note that when we forsake character in determining our leaders, we, again quoting Lewis, “remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

  7. FWIW, Mike, I intended to use the word “Barbarian” because some of them, perhaps a small number, are at the gate within our cultures. I have been struggling with the Babylonian metaphor for about a month now and still am. My thinking is that we Christians in America were not uprooted and transported hundreds of miles. Rather, we forgot who we were and allowed the influence of a “Barbarian” mindset to surround us without objecting, while being very lackadaisical about our own language and beliefs. Again, FWIW.

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